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Dare to eat in Beijing

Freaky feasts from the Chinese capital. What you'll have to try and where to do it.

Beijing, and the mysterious winding alleys of the old town, dotted with ancient treasures, is a city that appeals to travelers with a sense of adventure and a will to explore. Those who pick their restaurants like they pick their holiday destinations will also find plenty to stretch their culinary horizons within Beijing’s often freaky food scene. Below are five “dare to eat” items on menus in China’s never-boring capital.  

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Is it drains? Is it durian? No, it’s stinky tofu!

Sometimes you’ll be casually strolling down a street in Beijing, only to be accosted by the foulest of orders, not unlike stinking drains. While in South East Asia the culprit would most likely be a stall selling the notoriously pongy “King of Fruits” durian, in Beijing it’s another beast all together.Chou Doufu, known as “stinky tofu” in English, is a particularly noxious-smelling fermented variety of the otherwise benign bean paste China executes so well. Black in color and usually deep-fried, the crispy-on-the-outside, smooth-on-the-inside squares of stench actually taste a lot better than they smell, likened by some to blue cheese.Nanjing Impressions, a fun concept restaurant designed in the image of street food markets from its namesake eastern city, is one of the best (and safest) places to try this locally-loved snack. Order a whole bunch of other small dishes – such as Lion Head Soup (don’t worry, it’s just a big pork meat ball in broth) – in case the taste is a bit too acquired for your liking.

Nanjing Impressions

4F, Shimao Department Store, No.13 Gongti North Road, Chaoyang

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Food for thought?

They say fish is brain food, so what does that make brain? Pig brain is somewhat of a delicacy in China, particularly in the southwestern provinces of Chongqing and Sichuan, although plenty of the squidgy stuff can be found in the nation’s capital, too. Usually served at barbecue or hot pot joints, this horror film-worthy bundle of nerve endings has a spongy texture and a creamy, slightly fishy taste.Test your nerves and stomach at the aptly-named Brain Factory, just off Beijing’s popular Nanlouguxiang shopping street. This trendy little modern eatery with a penchant for rock music also serves up pig snout and chicken gizzard skewers, alongside other less exotic dishes.

Brain Factory

81 Xiaojuer Hutong, Nanlouguxiang, Dongcheng

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Bunny boiler

Another Sichuan specialty of the top-of-body variety is rabbit head — certainly not one for those who had a bunny as a child or cried at Watership Down. Usually served with the teeth and ear stubs still attached, this is nose-to-tail dining at its most gruesome, although arguably its most delicious, also.Rabbit head used to be served at street-side snack stalls all over Beijing, but these days they tend to be confined to restaurants specializing in Sichuan cuisine.The true masters are Shuangliu Laoma Rabbit Heads, who stew the bunny toppers in two sauces, mala (spicy and numbing) or wuxiang (five spices). They even provide handy diagrams of the most efficient cranium-busting strategy.

Shuangliu Laoma Rabbit Heads

48 Dongsanhuan Nanlu, Chaoyang

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Dip into ‘Beijing hummus’

Often described as Beijing’s answer to hummus, Ma Doufu is the slurry-like byproduct of a dreary-looking grey breakfast drink made from mung beans. With a texture somewhere between smooth and grainy, this sour-tasting, eggy-smelling paste is traditionally fried in lamb fat and topped with chilies, although vegetarians should have no problem finding a version cooked in vegetable oil if they utter “bu che rou” (I don’t eat meat) on ordering. Despite its unappealing appearance, the taste is actually pretty good, especially when accompanied with other classic Beijing dishes, such as dumplings.A foolproof place to sample both is Xianlaoman, a consistently consistent chain restaurant whose tagline “Our dumplings are the fullest” is no empty brag. Go for the Ma Doufu, stay for the endless and creative dumpling fillings and lively family atmosphere.

Xianlaoman

252 Andingmen Neidajie, Dongcheng District

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Scary Skewers

Meat skewers (known locally as chaunr) are synonymous with Beijing’s street food scene. From the pedestrian and palatable cumin-encrusted lamb pieces, to the tasty but primal-seeming string of tiny chicken hearts, to the rubbery ribbons of intestines, a full spectrum of animal parts (and vegetables) can be found spiked and sizzled on every corner.The most weird and wonderful are served up on the famed, if not a little touristy, Wangfujing Snack Street. Scorpions, starfish and seahorses are some of the most unusual examples from just one letter of the alphabet. Start at A and see how far you dare go.

Wangfujing Snack Street

Wangfujin, DongDan, Dongcheng

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